The theme for Lent this year has been sanctuary. I have found it just about everywhere I look in my Bible study, and I have found my Lenten readings of the Book of John to be infused with temple imagery.
In a previous post, I noted how God "tabernacled among us." As I moved into John 2, the tabernacle/temple was there again, where Jesus cleanses the temple of money lenders.
Why does the author John place this story at the beginning of Christ's ministry when the other three gospels place it in the middle of Passion Week? Is he more concerned with poetry than with accuracy--as one might be led to believe from chapter 1? What is this author really trying to say?
The Book of John was written well after the synoptic gospels were written--as many as 30 years by some estimates. The 4th-century church historian, Eusebius, states that the author had read the other three by then, and he offered his gospel to enhance and elaborate upon the themes of the synoptics.
If Eusebius is right--and I think most readers would agree that John has a more carefully developed theology and more rational development to its insights--then the author placed this story here for a purpose, not necessarily for a straight retelling of the Jesus story. Figuring out the reason the story is here, then, will help us to understand more about what the author of John really got from his time with Jesus.
The incident retold in John takes place just before the passover. Jerusalem's tourist industry is working all out, and the most lucrative place to sell to pilgrims has to be the vast temple courts. No doubt priests have been bribed for these prime spots, and now pilgrims must cope with the din of trading to make their prayers.
Into this fray, Jesus charges with righteous indignation, turning over tables, opening pigeon coops, and shouting, "Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father's house into a market!" (v 16, NIV). The author approves of this, tying it to a text beloved by Jewish nationalists, "Zeal for your house will consume me" (Psalm 69.9).
It's almost as if he is saying, "You see? This is the one. This Jesus knows what it's all about." But it is important to note that this isn't the political blindness of disciples related by Mark and Matthew. The author has had time to think about this. That's why he adds verses 17-22.
The Jews want a sign (so far Jesus is known for a miracle that brought wine to a wedding). Jesus says he can "destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days."
In this chapter he has cleansed the temple; now he says he can destroy it and raise it up. The Jews react with typical blindness. They are literalists--like Nicodemus in the following chapter, they cannot imagine things they cannot see, and they are woefully unprepared to discern when the Spirit will be unleashed by Jesus following his Ascension.
The temple is Jesus' spirit, which will rest for three days before being resurrected. The temple becomes our spirit, too, as Paul relates later in the New Testament. In many ways, the destruction and rebuilding of the Temple is repeated in John 3 (in a far more memorable and understandable way) through the image of death and rebirth.
I think that's what the author of John wants us to gain from Chapter 2. It's about the Temple, but it's more than that. It's really about us--about me. Jesus cleansed the temple of a rabble of sellers and possessions--he offers cleansing to the desires and trivialities that distract my spirit when it seeks communion. He promises to tear down the temple and rebuild it--just as he offers to tear apart the house of cards in which I take pride and replace it with a life of worship, built on a solid foundation.
From the beginning of John, God is looking for a place to tabernacle. It is clear, beginning with chapters 2 and 3, that believers are the very buildings in which He hopes to dwell. The Temple in Jerusalem was a beautiful place, no doubt loved by the Jews and protected by them against a radical like Jesus, whom they mistakenly feared would tear the place down.
Jesus had different temples in mind--as different methods of destruction. His Spirit was waiting--like the pillar of fire in the Exodus--to tabernacle with the Kingdom of Heaven he had come to create.
Now to the question I pose in my title. Who wrote the Book of John? As most know, he only identifies himself as "the one Jesus loved."
The author is based in Jerusalem. Most of the book chronicles interactions Jesus had over a series of visits to the Jewish capital (the synoptics imply that Jesus only visited Jerusalem in the week prior to his death). Bethany also features in this book, with Jesus' visits to Mary, Martha and Lazarus.
The author is immersed in temple. He uses temple connections to get a front-row view of Christ's trial for himself and Peter. He fills his gospel with hidden allusions to temple, as I have demonstrated above.
Could this be a fisherman from Galilee as the son of Zebedee was? I think it is unlikely. One theologian I read, Ben Witherington III, speculated that the author was Lazarus, who may have later went to Ephesus, where he shared his story with an editor, John the Revelator.
Personally, I would vote for Barnabas, who was Jesus' disciple, a Cypriot Jew, and traditionally held to be the owner of the Upper Room, from which so much detail can be found in chapters 13-17. Furthermore, his role in Christianity's incorporation of gentiles, shows that he must have been effective at explaining Christ's mission to infant Christians.
Let me know what you think!